5 Questions with Affiliate Faculty Member Dr. Coleman Hutchison

Happy Monday! Today we bring you an interview with associate professor of English Coleman Hutchison, an affiliate faculty member of the American Studies department.


What has been your favorite project to work on and why?

I have a healthy dose of the presentist in me: I really like whatever I’m working on right now. For instance, I’m really excited about a collection I’m pulling together for Cambridge University Press, the first omnibus history of American Civil War literature. As editor I’ve been able to draw on a number of disciplines—literary studies, yes, but also, history, cultural studies, musicology, art and art history—and draw together a truly international roster of scholars. Together we’ll be addressing a literature that emerges in response to a very specific historical drama and then continues to develop across both the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Needless to say, this is a much more collaborative project than my first book, and it’s been hugely gratifying.

Of course intellectual pleasure can also come from unexpected and somewhat awkward sources. My first book offered a literary history of the Confederate States of America. It may have been about the “bad guys,” but there was immense pleasure in getting to work with archival material that people either didn’t know existed or didn’t want to deal with. The extraordinary historical interest and extraordinary political problems of that material were really exciting and daunting and uncomfortable for me. That project pushed me to the edge of my comfort zone, the edge of what I thought I could do as a responsible critic. There was, then, a strange intellectual pleasure in that sort of “recovery work.”

How do you see your work fitting in with broader conversations within academia or within society as a whole?

Because I’m a first-generation college student—because this life was never a given for me—it’s always been important for me to make my writing and research available to as many people as possible. Part of that has to do with style—with writing in a clear, cogent, and concise way that doesn’t involve a lot of jargon. The work may be theoretically rich and complex, but it is, I hope, delivered in a way that’s accessible. I think that scholarly knowledge production is increasingly important in a moment of intense information overload. Just because everyone has a blog or a Tumblr or a Twitter feed doesn’t mean that the knowledge we produce in the academy is less necessary, less urgent.  The glacial pace of academic publishing and knowledge production is in some ways an advantage, because we can take a more considered, more careful argumentative tacks and engage in longer, older, maybe even slower critical conversations. This is not to say that we should return to a closed circuit wherein academics produce work only for other academics, but we should continue to do what we do best, which is produce careful, well-researched critiques, and then put those critiques into new and interesting forms. For instance, I’ve done a good bit of work for Southern Spaces online, and I love the idea that careful, considered scholarship can engage a broader, open source community.

What projects or people have inspired your work?

I take a somewhat longue durée approach to criticism. Some of the foundational works in American Studies remain ever present in my thinking and writing—people like F. O. Matthiessen and Vernon Parrington, for instance. I was sort of a theory-head in graduate school, and that was also immensely important to me. I still teach a great deal of theory, though I now marshal less of it in my writing. (I think I’ve now digested the stuff a bit better?) Foucault was foundational for me, Derrida was foundational for me…..

I continue to read a lot of criticism—maybe too much criticism—both new and old; as a result, there are fewer individual figures that loom large for me, but there are certainly critical conversations that have helped to inspire my work. I return again and again to old school back-and-forths like the Douglas-Tompkins debates about domestic fiction, as well as to latter day interlocutors like the late, great Lora Romero. I like to think generationally about issues like women’s agency, politics, and genre; I’m interested in intellectual debates that spread not over years but decades.

What is your background as a scholar and how does it inform and motivate your current teaching and research?

I think the biggest influence has been my personal background—my dad was on food stamps when I applied to college, I was never supposed to be an academic, &c. &c.. It wasn’t until my senior year at Vanderbilt (where I was an education major who planned to teach high school) that I had a couple of professors who, intervention-style, said, “Why don’t you go to graduate school, where you can teach and also have some of the policy and social justice stuff be more explicitly part of your work.” I said, “That sounds great…How does one do that?” My professors’ encouragement really helped me to imagine another, alternative route for my life. I then went to Northwestern for my M.A. and Ph.D., where I planned to work with Betsy Erkkilä on Walt Whitman. Betsy is also a first-generation college student, and she helped me to imagine a life in this profession that was both fulfilling and of use, a life where I was not merely enjoying the benefits of “summers off” and tenure but also getting to do something with my criticism and teaching that was socially-engaged.

What projects are you excited about working on in the future?

Two projects—the first of which is a clear response to having spent several years reading really bad Confederate poetry. I’m working on a small book on the relationship between race and place in American poetry. It begins in 1863, with the Emancipation Proclamation, and goes up to 2009, with Elizabeth Alexander reading “Praise Song for the Day” at the inauguration for President Obama. The project puts poets in conversation around the specific locations where race takes place, where race happens. The theoretical framework is broad: it brings together work from cultural sociology and critical geography to tell a story about a red thread in American poetry that people haven’t spent a lot of time talking about. Selfishly, it also finds me writing about people like Natasha Trethewey, Li-Young Lee, Garret Hongo, C. S. Giscombe, Effie Waller Smith, Walt Whitman, and Edgar Lee Masters—folks that I really admire and whose work I find endlessly compelling. (That’s not something I can say about the Confederate poets.)

The second project is a cultural biography of Dixie. Here I’ll tell a broad story about both the nineteenth-century song and what happens to the word “Dixie” in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. In the past couple of years I’ve gotten really interested in naming, in particular how place-names work. I’ve also begun collecting the innumerable products that the word “Dixie” helps to sell—everything from baby bonnets to mortuary services, from botanicals to beer. It’s an immensely promiscuous word, and I think it does some important and problematic work in defining the South both to itself and to other regions. So I will deal with the Dixie Cup and the Dixie Chicks, the Dixiecrats and the Dixie Highway, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and “If Heaven Ain’t’Ain’t a Lot Like Dixie.”  I suppose it’s a classic American Studies project—big and messy and protean, just like American Studies itself.

If you had to describe American Studies in one sentence, what would you say?

One of the things I love about American Studies is its relentless self-interrogation: this is a discipline that is always, for better or worse, re-imagining its objects of study and methodologies with a critical eye toward telling better, more effective stories about this extraordinary and extraordinarily complex country.

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